A Conversation with Francesca Marciano, author of CASA ROSSA
Q: Your first novel, RULES OF THE WILD, was about Africa. You evoke places so vividly–what made you want to write about Italy this time?
A: After writing about Kenya — a place where I spent several years of my adult life — I felt the urge to go a little deeper, to plunge into some early memories, some closer feelings. Although Casa Rossa is a work of fiction, so much of the complex tapestry of my background as an Italian is woven into it.
There are, I think, certain images that follow us all of our lives; they are as powerful as if they’re engraved into our DNA, and are responsible for shaping our lives.
In this novel I wanted, among other things, to conjure up these images of mine, and try to make them come to life on the page. They come from the landscape of Southern Italy–cacti; relentless cicada song among the olive trees; crumbling farmhouses and their thick walls, the sweet smell of ripe figs: these are the sounds, sights, and smells of the place I fell in love with as a child.
For me Southern Italy is a place with incredible power, and as I set out to write Casa Rossa, I thought it would serve well as background for the characters of a novel. I wanted the people who inhabit this novel to mirror the quality of the landscape: its beauty and power, its starkness–a feral quality. It’s a land beset by poverty; to live here, one would have to have a will to survive everything.
Q: And why did you choose to have your main character–your narrator–spend much of her time in New York City?
A: Of the two sisters, Alina escapes; she moves to New York City and, in the heady atmosphere of the art world of the 80s, tries to camouflage herself in a place where people’s pasts don’t count and there’s no sense of belonging. Nobody has time for memories; everyone is too busy making plans for the future.
In the neat grid of the streets of Manhattan, Alina can finally put the story of her sister, her mother and her grandmother in perspective. She falls in love with a man who is, to her, a quintessential American: Daniel Moore is man for whom there’s only yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. To him it’s unconceivable that Alina could be in such deep denial over her sister’s role in a terrorist movement. When Daniel follows Alina back to Casa Rossa, the demarcation line between right and wrong, true or false, will no longer be as clear for him. Even this pragmatic American will come to see that the truth sometimes has a price attached that nobody (in a family) wants to pay. It is a lesson that all the Strada family must learn as well.
Q: What is it like, writing about your own country in English, which is not your first language?
A: I chose to write much of the book while living in the US — which, along with not writing it in Italian, helped me keep a necessary narrative distance, and I hope, some objectivity. English doesn’t have the same emotional implications for me that Italian has. Had I started writing it in Italian, I might have censored myself more. At the moment I’m working on the translation into Italian (the book will be published in Italy in January 2003) and it’s been a difficult process. I almost need to re-write it: there are things about Italy that Italians don’t need for me to explicate, and things I may need to do more of, for the Italian reader.
Q: Do you consider this a political novel? Could the events have taken place anywhere besides Italy?
A: This is a novel about the particular history of Italy, and the historical facts are of course more than relevant. On the other hand, since the theme of the novel is memory and the various facets of one truth, one could say that the novel carries a universal theme. The reason I wanted to write this novel about a family in Italy — taking the reader from WWII, through the glamorous days of Rome in the 50s and the booming sixties, all the way through the dark years of terrorism — is that I always saw a parallel in the way history unfolds and passes on its version to the next generation, and the way the memory and the history of a family is passed on to their children and grandchildren. Both release the story of what “really” happened only after a careful editing, and often only after either lightening the dark areas of the past, or exaggerating the grey areas, and making them black.
So much of our history — as families and as citizens — is blurred by denial. Italy had a dubious role during the Mussolini years and more so during the war. Italians have been very successful at wiping out their Fascist past. Shortly after the war, we proceeded to forget (actively forget, that is) that we ever raised our hands up to Il Duce. In that same way, the Strada family tries to obliterate its past, wipes out facts, in order to survive and move on.
As we all know, denial can be a very effective weapon for survival. It can make people stronger (like Alba in the novel). Perhaps the reason Italians seem so vivid and full of life is that we’re champions at forgetting.
Denial can also destroy one’s psyche, the burden becomes too heavy (like what happens to Isabella — she is, in the end, destroyed by the truth of what she has done, politically, and to her family). Truth often rises to the surface unexpectedly, like air bubbles. Or like the way a painting seeps through a coat of paint that covers it; in the novel, the fresco of the adulteress/betrayer, Renee — who commits a political and sexual crime as it were — shows her eyes to the family in each generation.
Q: What do you imagine “Italy” evokes for Americans? What did it mean for your American Daniel Moore who falls in love with Italy?
A: Italy probably still evokes, as it did for E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, and Hemingway, a notion of otherness. There’s a sense of freedom, of exhilaration, whenever an American comes to Italy and realizes the place, as lovely as it is, is still so “unstructured.” Even Alina feels this when she leaves New York and comes back to Rome. She says that when Daniel, “The Romantic American,” comes to Italy, he seems to display “a longing for some form of emotional disruption.” He desires contamination, risk, and to have his world turned upside down. The image of Italy, of its rawness, evokes in him a longed-for vulnerability that makes him feel more alive.
Q: Your portrait of Isabella, and the portrait of the inner workings of a terrorist group, is striking, particularly right now. Was this a choice you made that was occasioned by the events of last September?
A: Actually, no. I started writing the novel and had the story plotted out in early 1999. In the seventies the student movement in Italy was very involved in the social struggle along with the working class. I would say that every school and university campus in that decade was extremely active, and that every single person I know from that generation, knew someone who had been, if not imprisoned and charged, at least investigated or arrested. That doesn’t mean that every student involved in politics was a terrorist, of course. But many started out as fervent militants and slowly ended up joining more and more extreme groups, until they joined groups who justified the use of arms, the stakes being so high.
To me, what was relevant was that once again, with terrorism, we Italians faced a civil war at home, and once again we solved it by warping the concept of truth. By offering reductions on the murders’ sentences in exchange for information, many of those terrorists came out of jail and walked around free. Once again, moving on seemed more important than processing what happened and why, and a whole generation — many militants of the extreme left who inspired terrorist acts — put their past behind them without having to deal with it. I didn’t want to write this part of history from a political angle; I wanted to write it from a personal one. What happens when the terrorist you read about in the newspaper comes from your own home? How does your perception of that family member change; what are you prepared to ask; and most of all: what are you prepared to know? Do you look at this person, now accused of murder, of terrorism, as a stranger, or do you keep seeing your sister, the little girl you played with as a child?
And most of all: do you understand better than the rest of the world what — which pain, which fear — made this person so hard, so full of rage, inasmuch as he, or in the case of Casa Rossa, she, has resorted to kill for a cause? In other words, your pain as a child, the need to divert the resentment, to find an Enemy, is an unknown fact or a mystery for everyone, but it’s traceable in the eyes of a sister or a mother.
Of course, after September 11 that part of the novel — for it is only one part of Casa Rossa — took on a different meaning. Even the word “terrorist” which was slightly abstract, and merely remembered from my experience of Italy in the 70s, resonated painfully. I think, to a certain extent, the story of these two sisters can be read as an attempt to understand how ideology is a consequence and not a cause. We choose the shape to give our pain when we are children. Some of us, like Isabella, turn it into a bullet.
Q: What’s next for Francesca Marciano?
A: After I finish the Italian version of this novel, I’ll spend the summer teaching English in East Africa, and during those months will probably face the writing process as mostly a series of grammatical rules. Next year I will probably write a few film scripts that I’ve put off for some time — while I was writing these novels! There are also a number of short stories I want to work on. As far as another book, well, in the very back of my head a very blurry idea is forming but hasn’t taken any shape yet. It may take years. Maybe not. But I’ll keep thinking.